climate change crime

Do Natural Disasters Create an Opportunity for Crime?

What is a Natural Disaster

A natural disaster is defined as a catastrophic event caused by natural processes. And here are the important criteria of the definition: It is measured by loss of lives, economic loss and the resilience of the economy to rebuild lost infrastructure. So, if a catastrophic event occurs in an uninhabited or sparsely populated area and none of the above-mentioned elements can be ticked off, it is not referred to as a disaster, just a natural hazard, or Mother Nature having a good time!

Are Natural Disasters On The Increase?

Well definitely not the geophysical ones. You know, you wake up in the morning and your new car with a sixty-month balloon payment scheme has been swallowed into a sink hole. These are geological events that our crafty friends in the insurance industry refer to in tiny print as “acts of God. These plod along at the speed of geology and physics. Caused by the tectonic movement of the Earth, the stresses and strains of continental plate collisions sometimes go through periods of more activity. Mostly we go about our daily lives quite unaware of the dynamics involved in keeping the planet running way below our feet. The burps and hiccups we feel by the way of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis are constantly paced in geological time and haven’t increased one little bit. 

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Not the same can be said for climatological natural disasters. You may argue, correctly, that there have always been hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, wildfires, floods, droughts, blizzards and heatwaves. The problem lies in the fact that man-made global warming has exacerbated the natural rhythms of the weather, resulting in more frequent and extreme natural disasters. Natural disasters on steroids. 

Although these events have become much more frequent and severe, let’s go back for a second to the definition of natural disasters. If one was to hit some desolate coastline, we would not be alarmed. But the truth is we have pretty much overpopulated our world. Our numbers sitting at 7.7 billion and counting. And here’s the worrying thing: most of us live in large coastal cities, in the way of storm surges and rising sea levels. Not exactly a dream summer beach holiday. It is therefore not only how we live that is causing our vulnerability to extreme weather events, but also where we live.

Is Global Warming To Blame?

To be fair, it isn’t only global warming that is responsible for the increase in natural disasters. It is more honest to say that their eventuality is made up of many parts of the industry of man. Apart from pumping exorbitant amounts of carbon and methane into the air, to be trapped and heated in our bubble of an atmosphere, we have also deforested enormous tracts of land, able to supply us, for biological reasons, with more clean air. In order to accommodate our growing urban populations, we continue to drain away wetlands, chop down mangrove swamps and generally concrete over pretty much all unruly vegetation that stands in the way of another housing development or mall. Our dedication is to urban sprawl. 

The Dominos Begin To Fall

Ecologists understand the imminent threat of ridding the city of these green areas, whose purpose has always been to supply ecological services to their surrounds. The aging infrastructure of most cities, dams and levees were not designed with climate change in mind. It is a great pity that civil and environment engineers never learned about these things until it was too late. Areas denuded of vegetation cannot dissipate the sun’s heat. Heat islands cover our cities, trapping pollution, causing heatwaves. When the storms come, there is no vegetation to slow and filter heavy rain. Instead the runoff races through the streets, unfettered by smooth concrete surfaces, and in no time at all convergences to form destructive and lethal floods.

A heavy rainstorm falling on a vegetated area will not cause an impact, because the plants trap the water and it drains away harmlessly into the soil. A spate of warm weather, without the heat trap of pollution, and tall buildings blocking aeration, wouldn’t necessarily cause a heatwave. But a series of these interconnected events join to form a cascading domino-like event. It happens like this: a thunderstorm deposits a lot of water with nowhere to go except through a community of people, who may for instance belong to a poorer neighbourhood, with less resources to rebuild. Presto, just add water -we have a natural disaster! 

What Has This Got To Do With Crime?

For crime to happen there needs to be someone willing to commit a crime; a victim who possesses something of value to the criminal; and an opportunity that brings them together. Natural disasters can do this. They cause a breakdown of social order, loss of property, transport, amenities, food, water and personal effects. More cascading events. In a situation like this, first responders and law enforcement officers have different priorities to attract their attention, opening the way for opportunistic crime.

But is this what really happens? Let’s take a closer look. The news media like disasters because drama sells. They have us believe that natural disasters spell social disorder, panic and large-scale looting. But researchers seeking an empirical link between crime and disasters that cause mass emergencies, are divided with regards to these claims. After all, the polar vortex experienced in North America this January, actually caused a marked decrease in crime in Chicago, one of USA’s most crime-ridden cities. And no-one can dispute that temperatures plunging well below those normally experienced in Antarctica did not constitute a natural disaster! Let’s face it, maybe pick pockets don’t like to have cold hands. 

Two Conflicting Arguments

There are two opposing theories about social disorder and criminal activity. One school of thought proposes that directly after a disaster, social bonds are strengthened by the common suffering of all. This is when heroes are born, helping those in danger with disregard for their own safety. Survivors band together, focussing on helping each other meet basic needs. Altruism abounds and the amount of crime actually decreases. The media likes these stories too, but tends to exaggerate mayhem and chaos, with the odd heart-warming, human rendition. 

The other proposition states that post-disaster chaos breaks down the ability of authorities to control social order, aligning the three components needed for crime to thrive; the criminal, the victim and the opportunity. This is called the Routine Activities Theory. A disaster can certainly change routine behaviours of the people involved; leaving property unguarded and police too busy with emergencies to control crime. Another theory, the Social Disorganisation Theory, states that communities that don’t have strong social cohesion, or less socio-economic resources, are more likely to have increases in crime and anti-social behaviour

Hurricane Katrina & The Looting Myth

Hurricane Katrina, made landfall in New Orleans in August 2005. The consequent flooding of 80% of the city due to the breaking of poorly constructed and maintained levees, is a good example of the relationship between natural disasters and press reports of crime spreading fear and prejudice. It was extensively reported in the media that in the aftermath of Katrina, widespread looting occurred. The Disaster Research Center of the University of Delaware wanted to find out if the media reports were factual, as many sociological studies dispute this behavior (Quarantelli, 1991; Lentini et al, 2016; Gray & Wilson, 1984). They interviewed 64 people that were present during and after the disaster; such as survivors and first responders; and organisations such as the Red Cross. The results were published in a paper entitled Disaster Realities in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Revisiting the Looting Myth (Published by Lauren Barsky and her band of researchers in 2006 at the University of Delaware).

It appears that the problem is one of semantics. Looting is defined as the act of larceny of personal property, but appropriating behaviour is when someone takes property owned by another because it is needed for emergency purposes. They may even intend to return it if they can. 

Study Findings

When the media reports were disentangled; it was found that they had in fact misled the population into believing that the appropriating behavior of citizens trying to help each other to survive in a crisis; was looting. Barsky and co. found that the reports of arrests due to looting post-disaster were reduced compared with pre-disaster reports. Many of the people interviewed believed that the true incidents of looting were perpetrated by that element of criminal who would have engaged in looting whether there was a hurricane or not. Katrina just provided the opportunity.

Instead, the media emphasis on crime caused panic amongst survivors and rescuers and in some instances, people refused to be evacuated from rising waters because they feared for their property and their lives. Another study found that media reports in the wake of Katrina over-exaggerated the extent of looting in New Orleans compared with other stricken areas along the gulf coast. Young African American men, stigmatized as perpetrators of gang violence during this time, were subsequently found to be involved in pro-social behavior. Often the so-called looting was the appropriation of items needed to help others survive. 

In fact, although the crime rate drastically dropped in the stricken city; the criminal justice system failed on levels which can only be compared with struggling third world countries. It has been argued that media reports created a racially-based criminalisation of a large portion of the citizenry of New Orleans; and these reports were used to legitimise punishment rather than aid as a disaster policy.

Florida And The Natural Disaster Laboratory

The problem is that most research regarding crime and disaster has been done on single isolated disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. In each case, the relationship between the disaster and an increase in crime depends on many social, economic and demographic variables. Luckily, or not, depending on whether you live there; the state of Florida in the USA, provides researchers with an in-situ laboratory to spatially and temporally study the relationship between natural disasters and crime. This is because Florida has many natural disasters, which regularly destroy communities of the rich and poor alike. The Spatial Hazard Events and Losses for the United States (SHELDUS, not to be confused with Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D) database measures the number of disasters per year and state that the average Floridian county is struck by six natural disasters a year, in the form of hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires.

Putting All The Theories Together

Taking into account both the Routine Activities Theory and the Social Disorganisation Theory, Sammy Zahran and fellow researchers conducted a study called Natural Disasters and Social Disorder: Modelling Crime Outcomes in Florida.  Data was collected from each county in Florida, after every natural disaster occurring between 1991 and 2005. The study took into account population size, economic wealth, density of law enforcement officers and non-profit organisations per affected community. The number of non-profit organisations in a community is a good indicator of the social unity of the people living there.

The study assessed the occurrence of different types of crime in each community, post-disaster. The crime types included violent crime, property crime and domestic violence. The results showed that in the aftermath of disaster, there was indeed a significant drop in violent and property crimes, across all walks of life, and an increase in reported domestic violence. Perhaps the stress that a natural disaster puts on communities and families who do not have the resources to recover from such loss of livelihood; creates an environment where crimes such as domestic violence can increase.

Preparing For The Future

Whether people turn into superheroes or super villains seems to depend very much on what their lives were like before disaster struck. Variables such as population size, personal income, level of education and wealth of the community must be considered before concluding that a natural disaster equals an increase in crime. Prior knowledge of the resilience of a community and the resources and disaster management plans at its disposal can help predict the possible outcome of how a disaster event will affect different areas, and how to mitigate crime in each eventuality. To make this practical take some time to consider the following:

  • Consider where you live and what type of natural disaster could happen in your community. Run some possible scenarios, if this happened, then what would I do? Create a plan. Its important to discuss this with your family, “If ever the forest behind our house catches on fire then……”. Nominating an emergency rendezvous point with the family is a good idea (don’t forget your pets in this discussion). 
  • Assess the people around you. Could you travel, rely on and survive with your neighbours, or do you need to get away from them as soon as possible. 
  • Emergency kits, grab bags and tinned food are good to have, but assume you won’t have time to get these things. A flash flood could catch you in the traffic. Knowledge, skills and planning become far more important than equipment which could be collected (or appropriated) at a later stage. If you are going to collect emergency equipment, you need a set for the house and one that travels with you in your day to day life. You can’t use what you don’t have, but you can always use what you know to do. 
  • Get fit and strong. Surviving a natural disaster may mean walking long distances because roads are destroyed or even fleeing from a direct threat. You may need to climb trees or carry awkward items like a hungry three-year-old who has missed her afternoon nap. 
  • Acquire some lifesaving skills. Teach your children to swim. Learn to think like a forager. Add some first aid and self defense skills into the mix.  

References And Further Reading

Adebayo, Z. (2018, March 10). Are Natural Disasters Getting Worse? Retrieved from The Borgen Project:

anon. (n.d.). Natural Disasters. Retrieved from BasicPlanet:

Barsky, L. (2006, January). Disaster realities following Katrina: Revisiting the looting myth. Retrieved from ResearchGate:

Barsky, L., Trainor, J., & Torres, M. (2006). Disaster Realities in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrins: Revisiting the Looting Myth. Delaware: Natural Hazards Center.

Bellair, P. (2017, July). Social Disorganization Theory . Retrieved from Oxford Researcg Encyclopedias Criminology and Criminal Justice:

Berger, D. (2009, August 14). Constructing crime, framing disaster: Routines of criminalization and crisis in Hurricane Katrina. Retrieved from SAGE Journals:

Berger, D. (2013, April 18). Constructing crime, framing disaster. Retrieved from ResearchGate:

Frailing, K. (2016, February 25). Understanding crime in communities after disaster: A research brief. Retrieved from Journalist’s Resource :

Garthwaite, J. (2019, February 6). Polar vortex: The science behind the cold. Retrieved from PhysOrg:

Gray, J., & Wilson, E. (1984). LOOTING IN DISASTER: A GENERAL PROFILE OF VICTIHTZATION. Ohio: Disaster Research Center The Ohio State University working paper #71.

Hartz, T. (2019, February 1). Violence plunged, too, during Polar Vortex: 2 shootings reported in 52 hours. Retrieved from Chicago Sun Times:

Lentini, M., Nikolov, P., & Schwartz, M. (2016). Do Natural Disasters Induce More Crime? Alpenglow: Binghamton University Undergraduate Journal of Research and Creative Activity.

Maynard, S., & Conner, N. (2016). Ecosystem Services. Retrieved from IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management:

none. (present day). Current World Population. Retrieved from Worldometers:

Quarantelli, E. L. (1991). Lessons From Research: Findings On Mass Communication System Behavior In The Pre, Trans, And Postimpact Periods Of Disasters. Retrieved from University of Delaware Disaster Research Center:

Reid Ross, E., Caris, E. M., Bea, M., & Moses , V. (2019, February). 5 Unsung Superheroes Who Rose Up During Natural Disasters. Retrieved from Cracked:

Ripley, A. (2008, September 3). Why Disasters Are Getting Worse. Retrieved from Time:,8599,1838400,00.html

Routine Activity Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from ScienceDirect:

SHELDUS (Spatial Hazard Events and Losses Database for the United States). (n.d.). Retrieved from Princeton University Library:

Simon, J. S. (2007). Wake of the Flood: Crime, Disaster, and the American Risk Imaginary after Katrina. Berkely Law Scholarship Repository.

Tully, E. (2018). Climate and Crime: Examining the Relationship Between Extreme Weather Events and Crime Rates in the United States. Retrieved from Claremont Colleges Scholarship @ Claremont:

Vahedifard, F., & Aghakouchak, A. (2018, October 22). The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is on the rise. Retrieved from PhysOrg:

Zahran, S., Tara O’Connor, S., Peek, L., & Brody, S. D. (2009). Natural Disasters and Social Order: Modelling Crime Outcomes in Florida. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 26-52.

Zimmerman, K. A. (2015, August 27). Hurricane Katrina: Facts, Damage & Aftermath. Retrieved from Live Science:

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